This New Netflix Documentary By a Fil-Am Filmmaker Puts the Focus on the Cebu Dancing Inmates

Director Michele Josue talks about Happy Jail.

(SPOT.ph) It's safe to say that Filipinos are known globally as talented folks—recently, there's Renee Dominique, whose cover is featured on an international ad; Ian Sta. Maria, a comic artist who does design work for LEGO; and filmmakers who are now part of the Academy of Motion Arts & Pictures. In the case of the inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, dancing is not just a showcase of talent but also a way to tell their story. It was in 2007 when the dancing inmates viral for their "Thriller" performance, and one of those who took notice was Emmy Award-winning Filipina-American director Michele Josue. She just couldn't get her mind off them all these years that she decided to make a documentary about the dancing inmates called Happy Jail, which streams on Netflix starting August 14.

Happy Jail is a five-part docu-series that explores life within the walls of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC), which is a jail unlike any other, because in this one, inmates dance. Their dancing may be quite the feast for the eyes, but beyond the synchronized moves are people who have their own stories to tell.

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Filipina-American director Michele Josue
PHOTO BY Netflix

In an interview with SPOT.ph, Josue mentions the thrill she felt when she first saw the video, and explains why she chose to make a documentary about it. "I got goosebumps. They were so joyful and united. In such a challenging situation, I just felt that [it] was such a wonderful thing to see and share with the rest of the world."

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Initially, she wanted to focus on just the dancing, but realizing that there was so much to unveil, she decided to go in-depth into the inmates' lives as well. "We got to really get to know the inmates and got to know their world. And I was very adamant in making a story that was lived-in, that was authentic to their experience," she says.

PHOTO BY Netflix
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The sudden shift in focus, she explains, was a welcome one. For Josue, changing vision and direction in the middle of production is an important skill in making documentaries. "While this was happening, it just felt like the most organic way to proceed with the film. I think the best [documentary filmmakers] are very nimble in that way. And they can adapt and shift as the story dictates. And so while we were there, just extraordinary things are happening," she expounds. "We just felt as storytellers, we had to see it through," she shares.

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"I think just experiencing the Cebuanos' hospitality and generosity...all the inmates were just very open and vulnerable and kind [to] us," she shares. Aside from her desire to know more about them, Josue also mentions her duty to them as a documentary filmmaker. "We really wanted to honor them and honor their stories and tell it in the dignified and respectful way it deserved to be told. So that was a complete privilege, just to get to know them and their world." And for her, one of the most exciting moments while shooting Happy Jail was "actually finding out the real reason for the origin of the dancing inmates."

The story may be theirs, but Josue feels that it is also a story of her people, the Filipino people, and this is her effort in sharing stories from home to the rest of the world. "As a Filipino-American, being able to have a film that allowed me to connect more deeply to where my family's from, you know, my heritage, that was an amazing opportunity for me, and it was life-changing," she expresses. She goes on to say that it's perhaps the best part of the entire process.

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PHOTO BY Netflix

But more than anything, Josue believes that Happy Jail can inspire viewers the world over. "I would want the rest of the world to fully understand the resilience and hope and strength and heart of the Filipino people," she shares.

More than their flashy dance moves and infectious smiles, the dancing inmates have deeper stories to tell—of being apart from family, the quest for justice, and more. Josue wishes for the world to see the hope Filipinos have, and that the inmates of CPDRC know a thing or two about it.

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Happy Jail is streaming on Netflix on August 14.

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